Some things don't belong in chat rooms

June 23, 1998|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON -- I didn't make it in time for the delivery. It was just one of those things. A traffic jam on the Internet. Creep and beep. Stall and crawl. Everybody trying to get to the same Web site at the same time.

When I was finally admitted to the birthing room at in the Arnold Palmer Hospital in Orlando, Fla., Elizabeth had already given birth to the 7-pound, 8-ounce baby boy with the full head of black hair. And everyone, save baby Sean, was congratulating themselves for an Internet birth well done. The Sean Show had begun.

Well, bless Sean's heart. He will go down in history as the first child officially born online to an international, logged-in audience. Bless the cameraman's angle; they won't be showing Sean's trip through the birth canal at his junior high graduation.

Lure of the fishbowl

But doesn't anyone around here have the itsy-bitsiest sense that certain things in life, like conception or birth, ought to be kept out of the public chat rooms?

I have no idea if the medical Webmeisters who dreamed up The Sean Show have seen "The Truman Show," that magical metaphor-a-minute movie about celebrity and privacy. But the similarities are kind of creepy.

In "Truman," Jim Carrey plays an unwitting TV star raised on a set dubbed Seahaven, apparently modeled after the Disney planned community of Celebration. In "Sean," the innocent Internet kid was born in a hospital named after a golf champion in Disneyworld's hometown.

But if Truman symbolizes the heroic desire to escape the camera, to rebel into privacy, Sean's family story shows the lure of the fishbowl.

There are, I suppose, two sides to the celebrity story. On the one hand, our post-Diana world is full of anti-paparazzi sentiment. The public sympathy goes to stars like Woody Harrelson, who try to protect their kids from a roving camera eye. The empathy goes to Jim Carrey when he says, "I've brought family pictures to Fotomat and had them end up in newspapers."

On the other hand, we have guests lining up for Jerry Springer and subjects volunteering for "reality programming." We have Jennifer Ringley putting up her entire life online at JenniCam.

In between we have Monica Lewinsky's protectors both protesting the paparazzi and posing her for Vanity Fair. We have Mom Elizabeth dilating for the user-friendly world, but withholding her last name from the newspaper.

In the movie, there is an ironic moment when the producer who secretly broadcasts Truman's every move is welcomed onto a talk show with the comment, "We know how jealously you guard your privacy." In reality, we don't guard privacy jealously enough.

I remember the old days when "Candid Camera" made people a touch squeamish and when the PBS series on the Loud family made us voyeurs. Now the town of Roslyn Heights, N.Y., installs 35 hidden surveillance cameras that feed live pictures of anyone moving on the streets onto the Internet.

Of course, there were 5,000 cameras lurking around Seahaven waiting for Truman. Yet we are led to believe that a worldwide audience tuned in because Truman was so "real." They were longing -- we are longing -- for authenticity.

Authentic moments

There is something perverse in the invasion of the privacy snatchers. As private space shrinks, the public's hunger for authenticity grows. As the hunger grows, the deeper we invade private life to find something real, and the shallower it gets.

The truth of Truman or true life is that broadcasting changes reality into reality programming. The truly authentic moments are the private ones. Only out of the klieg lights are we freely, unselfconsciously ourselves. When too many pieces of our lives are shared, when too many people we've never met know all about us, we lose the sense of wholeness.

I don't think Sean will have his own Web site. After Elizabeth gave birth live and online, the narrator told the parents, "You've shared a miracle with the whole world." But there are times when RTC a miracle shared is a miracle diminished. There is no such thing as Internet intimacy.

Let me remind you what Jim Carrey said in one of the many interviews before the release of his star-turn. When asked to talk about his marriage to Lauren Holly, he said: "Beep, access denied. Beep, access denied."

Now there's a handy bit of software for the times.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 6/23/98

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